The first time I saw Ashlee Bell, we were at a small coffee shop close to our campus in rural Illinois. I was intrigued by her smile and the spark in her eyes that looked at me from under aqua blue hair. A beloved member of The Wolfpack – a group of friends that hung out in hammocks, climbed buildings, and celebrated life and its weirdness through a collective and wordless understanding – Ashlee soon became one of my closest friends and life confidents. I’ve come to know her as a lover of anthropology, cats, horror movies, and all things peculiar, and I talked with her about just that.
Daria: You study anthropology at Eastern Illinois University. It’s a joy to watch how excited you get about this field of study. I remember a time we got lost in an old book store in Champaign, and you started squeaking with joy at the sight of books on ancient history and culture. Where does this passion come from?
Ashlee: I suppose I always had a love for anthropology before I really even knew what it was. I grew up watching the Indiana Jones movies and always loved the adventures Dr. Jones went on along with the beautiful places and ruins he traveled through. I had a dream once when I was younger where I traveled to some beautiful ruins with beautiful, withered trees that entangled around the old buildings. I remember being with a group of people and walking a large, black dog. Later on, I discovered the dream took place in the temples and ruins of Cambodia known as Angkor Wat.
One evening, I spent my time looking up pictures and information about these ruins and cried because I couldn’t handle the beauty. Maybe one day I’ll get to go there for real.
“I am always intrigued that no one will ever truly experience something in the same way as others.”
As for anthropology, I discovered the discipline when I attended University and fell in love — I felt a sense of awakening in that this is what I was meant to study. I find it so fascinating that there are different cultures and people living their daily lives vastly different from my own. They experience things so differently. I am always intrigued that no one will ever truly experience something in the same way as others. We can compare how we experience things but we’ll never truly know how others feel or experience life.
D: You went to Malta as part of an anthropology field trip during the summer of 2016 and you’re going back this year. How has this trip shaped you?
A: I was lucky enough to travel to Malta to live in a culture different from my own, breaking through my comfort zone is several ways. I’ve never flown on an airplane, traveled alone, been in salt water… This trip challenged me but I knew I could handle it. I have this weird part of me — this hopeful part — that if you really want something in life, there is always a way as long as you try. And lucky for me, I get to go back to Malta this summer to help other future anthropologists and Indiana Jones, like myself, to get a good experience.
D: Do you have a favorite memory about your first trip to Malta?
Trading eggs with locals in Malta
A (after looking through her journal and field notes): On one of our first days in Malta, we were separated into groups and sent all over on a mission to trade an egg and keep trading with the locals. The goal was to gain stories and experience. One man we came across later on in the afternoon was an older British man who had lived in Malta for about 20 years. He talked about how he’d just rescued a bunch of kittens, which is something he often does with his pup. There are as many stray cats in Malta as there are squirrels in Illinois in the U.S. — they are everywhere. When he went inside his home to get an item to trade, he came back with kittens as well. I got to hold a baby orange tabby and my heart was thrilled. I wanted to take the little guy home so badly. He was so precious. This moment filled my cat-loving heart with so much happiness and reminded me of home.
D: Ah, cats! I couldn’t picture you without them…
A: I’ve always been around cats since I was a lil kitten myself. My first cat was an orange tabby named Boo Boo. Why I named him that I cannot remember. Maybe it was my instinctual love for all things creepy and peculiar peaking at a young age. Now, I have a cat who I call my son named Otis.
D: How would you describe him to others?
A: I would describe him as an affectionate little ferret. He is soft, sweet and loves to play. When he focuses on a toy or laser dot, his eyes cross. That way you can tell he’s really focused. He’s such a pretty cat that my grandma insists he is actually a girl which is interesting. He sleeps about as much as I do… times three. And whenever I go to feed him and our other cats, he makes little noises that remind me of a bird chirping. Needless to say, he’s a very unique little fella.
D: I’ve come to know you as a passionate advocate of “all things peculiar,” including a passion for horror movies.
A: I think I like things that are peculiar because I see myself as such. I’ve never liked to roll with the norms or conform to society’s expectations of what I should be — hence my aqua blue hair, piercings, and tattoos. I feel more like myself with all these things that aren’t seen as what one might call “normal.” I’m fascinated by peculiar things because they’re different and I think anything different is beautiful in itself.
“I tried conforming to society in middle school and decided it wasn’t for me.”
I think these passions come from this innate urge to just be myself. I tried conforming to society in middle school and decided it wasn’t for me. Being the strange and peculiar individual with this powerful ambition to never give up plays a part.
I would also like to add about my tarot readings. I started practicing tarot about a year and a half ago. I used to be wary of the practice, seeing the cards tied to Ouija boards and such. But as I delved more into tarot, I began to feel more connected to myself spiritually. It’s helped me cope with anxieties and make decisions I was unsure of. I feel especially tied to my new deck, the Mystical Cats Tarot deck, for obvious reasons.
“I find horror movies comforting.”
As far as all the creepy things and horror elements that I love, I just like gore and blood. Maybe it’s because it’s realistic or maybe it’s because it’s what people fear most. I find horror movies comforting.
D: You were at a bar and talked to people about sociology and dead bodies not too long ago. How did people react?
A: Surprisingly well. I was talking with a kind stranger about our studies and I began to talk about my interest in anthropology and dead bodies to which he replied, “Like body farms?” Though it was hard to hear his responses because of the music, he seemed pretty calm and interested. I swear I couldn’t keep it in though, I was so eager to talk about dead things.
D: Is there something you would like others to understand about death and horror in order for this — what’s the right word? — unconventional passion of yours to become a more conventional topic?
“Death is beautiful in the way the body decomposes into just a skeleton. It’s a process just like life is.”
A: I’d like the world to not see death as an end but a beginning to a new life. Maybe it’s because I dabbled in Past Life Regression hypnosis and firmly believe in past lives — that our souls continue on until they’ve fully experienced every emotion. Death is beautiful in the way the body decomposes into just a skeleton. It’s a process just like life is. Death hurts and death scares people, but in some other cultures, the living even dine with the dead or they celebrate the life they lived.
Horror also scares people and I think that’s what I love about it — horror is scary but there’s a deeper meaning in the genre that can help us to better understand ourselves and the world around us. Why are there so many horror movies about the paranormal and ghosts? We typically fear what we do not know or understand. Death and horror are things we do not completely understand. But if we try, they can help to get other perspectives about the world and perhaps even our life purpose or destiny.
D: If you’re not afraid of horror movies and serial killers — what is your greatest fear?
“If someone I care about or even a stranger is sad, I can feel it and then I’ll get sad, too. ”
A: I think my biggest fear is losing to my inner demons. I care much more deeply than most and empathize with others. Sometimes this takes a toll on me. If someone I care about or even a stranger is sad, I can feel it and then I’ll get sad, too. I, myself, become saddened and depressed often and sometimes the demons win. I’ll isolate myself and avoid my friends for some period of time. Luckily, I’ve been more positive and in control lately. Traveling to Malta really helped and saved my life as much as The Wolfpack did. There is so much beauty in this world beyond what I’ve seen that needs exploring. I see my cat Otis, I see my siblings and my family and friends. I’m alright for now and don’t plan on losing this optimism and hope anytime soon.
D: I truly appreciate this a lot because I can relate to everything you’ve just said. This delicate fiber that links everything… Sometimes it’s just too easy to get caught up right in the middle of everything.
A: It really is. Life is crazy and sometimes bittersweet. But I see everything happens for a reason and, regardless of the outcomes, ultimately builds us to be better and stronger individuals.
“Isn’t life meant to be lived?”
D: I’ve recently talked to a few people about their feelings and thoughts about youth and what it means to be young. How would you describe this period of our lives?
A: I think it’s so important to go outside of our comfort zones, to travel, to fall in love and to forget about the lives we will lead — to an extent of course. It’s important to not put all our energy into these jobs we need to survive. I struggle a lot in that isn’t life meant to be lived? So many people forget about the living part and being in the moment because they only focus on the future. I met someone this year who I fell completely head over heels for. He puts a lot of his focus on the future whereas mine is in the present. It’s hard being as young as we are and dealing with what life throws at us in that we are in this weird limbo of figuring out who we are.
“Do I really know what love is? Of course I do.”
Do I really know what love is? Of course I do and it’s not what society tells me. It’s a feeling I can feel deep in my heart and soul. So, this period of our lives is ultimately just about following our dreams and figuring out who we are through the everyday experiences we are faced with. It really is so important to be in the moment and to not worry too much about the past or future.
D: If you could change one thing about the world or the way we live, what would that be?
“Races are not real but racism is.”
A: I don’t know how, but I’d love to eliminate the hate people have about people they don’t know and things they don’t understand. I really don’t like how our world objectifies groups of people, completely ignoring that in these groups are individuals with their own thoughts and motives. One thing I learned in anthropology is that races are not real but racism is. Our skin colors are based on geographic locations. I think that is an important lesson for the world to understand in order to diminish and hopefully remove racism or hate of any kind.
D: A last question: You often recite movie lines and quotes. Do you have a favorite?
A: This is a little difficult. A movie quote I really like is from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “You look at a baby, and it’s so pure and so free and so clean… and adults are, like, this mess of sadness.” I’ve always found that interesting. We are completely new and innocent. As we grow up we are typically impacted by the world and society and everything around us.
My favorite quote ever is by Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Every individual has a place to fill in the world and is important in some respect, whether he chooses to be so or not.”